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Online program helps students catch up to graduate

At 18, four years into high school and behind on credits, Jasmine Szymanski is faced with the reality that she has a lot of catching up to do if she’s going to graduate in June.

So she shows up at school, logs onto a computer and spends the day completing her coursework online. On this morning, it’s literary elements and devices for English III.

“I feel like I have learned a lot,” said Szymanski, as she scribbled notes in front of a computer monitor, “and, so far, I’ve gotten two credits since I’ve been here.”

Buffalo Public Schools has long struggled with what to do for its students who are overage, under-credited and off track to graduate, so the district started this online program in September to help more kids earn a diploma.

This is their second chance.

“If they didn’t have this program, they would be at extreme risk of dropping out,” Superintendent Kriner Cash said.

Such efforts have become more common in urban districts struggling to get students to finish high school, but they’re not without criticism.

Critics say these “credit recovery” programs tend to offer a lesser quality of education, haven’t proven to be effective and are too often used to inflate graduation rates.

Advocates point out that students still need to pass any required Regents exam to prove they learned the material. And done correctly, they argue, the program provides an opportunity – hope – for students who have otherwise grown frustrated and are ready to give up.

“It gives them the chance to move ahead at their own pace,” said Cash, who peeked into Szymanski’s classroom, “and the more they put into it, the faster they go.”

Cash, in fact, is hopeful the new program will help the district meet its graduation target: 70 percent by 2019.

Buffalo is using the GradPoint Online Credit Recovery program for its new efforts.

The online program is typically used by students repeating a class. It has been more of an informal process, with the online courses completed by students during a free period or after school under the guidance of a teacher, explained Principal Valarie Kent.

This year, though, Buffalo put together an expanded, more formal “virtual pathway” program.

Students who are in their fourth year and have fewer than 13 credits were referred, and what began in September with less than a dozen students has grown to 90.

Kent was tapped to oversee the program and a staff that includes four teachers from the core subject areas, four from special education, one who teaches English as second language, as well as a guidance counselor – all embedded in four designated classrooms to help students along the way.

The four sites are at: South Park High School, Riverside Institute of Technology, the Academy School @ 4 and Burgard High School, where Szymanski was logged on during a recent morning.

Of particular concern are the influx of students transferring into the district with few credits, explained Sabatino Cimato, associate superintendent for school leadership.

“The kids that are coming to me, no matter what, would not have graduated this year, so getting any of them to graduate is a bonus,” Kent said.

The program offers a more flexible schedule with most students starting around 9 a.m. and working through 2 p.m., stopping periodically to attend an art or gym class or grab a snack from the table at the front of the room.

Szymanski previously attended the Academy School @4, where she was easily distracted in class or too afraid to ask questions. She admitted she was busy “running the halls being bad.”

She likes this setting better.

“Way better,” Szymanski said.

Teacher Molly Stock, right, works with student Armani Price, left, in the "virtual pathway" program. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

In the row behind Szymanski sat Armani Price, who was “fooling around” and “skipping class” at Oracle Charter School before transferring to this program with just six credits. It takes 22 to graduate.

Price, 18, buckled down and quickly knocked off five classes.

Over at Riverside, Terrance Samuel was taking a quiz about politics for his government class, an 80 or better allowing him to move to the next chapter.

Samuel is having an easier time compared to last year when he was attending Middle Early College High School. So far, he’s earned three credits.

“I think it’s going to help me graduate,” said Samuel, 17.

Behind Samuel was Baeley Coyne, who was learning strategies for reading poetry.

Her attendance was poor at Emerson School of Hospitality and she fell behind, so Coyne was in classes with underclassmen. She probably would have dropped out, but instead enrolled here.

“I think it’s easier to learn on your own because you can go at your own pace,” said Coyne, 17. “But it’s different for everyone.”

The amount of work ahead will be challenging for some of the students who have a lot of catching up, said Sheila Busshart, a special education teacher in the program at Riverside.

“Will it be successful for every student? Absolutely not,” Busshart said. "I can see some students not using their time wisely.”

But for others, Busshart sees the urgency setting in.

She’s optimistic about their graduation – if not this June, then soon.

“It’s not the difficulty of the material,” Busshart said, “it’s the perseverance of the student and their willingness to make this happen.”

“It’s dependent on how hard they’re going to work,” Kent said. “I’ve got several kids who have gotten five or six credits completed through half the year, so if they keep working at it, they have a good shot at graduation.”

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